The Speaker at the Funeral

I'm not obsessed with death and dying, I'm really not. But I'm in that age group. The parents are getting older, some are passing on. So there are more funerals than there used to be, more survivors of lost loved ones to visit or call. Sometimes we hardly know them, but we visit anyway.

So much worse than losing a fish, parent loss. Let's be real.

When you visit people in these circumstances, you avoid saying stupid things. You try not to say things like, It's better this way, a timely loss, if ever there was one; he suffered so much.

Not for us to say! The survivors know what went on in the hospital, they know the history of the illness. They know what it was like care-taking their parents, or not care-taking their parents. Is it ever timely? For whom? Best to assume not.

We visitors know nothing, virtually, so when we visit, we try to listen and learn, practice waiting for a mourner to talk. Maybe ask a few questions about the deceased. It's an art, a meaningful shiva.

I understand that a wake is a very different experience. At a wake (correct me if I'm wrong, please) one raises one's glass. It's a very different type of send-off, more cheerful. The purpose is for everyone to "move on." If that's possible.

Survivors have a million decisions to make, no matter the culture. Like who's going to speak at the funeral. Functional families resolve problems well, so decisions like this one aren't that hard. Yet, there you are, grieving a loss, and you have to decide, Who's going to officiate? Who's going to speak? These are things to think about, and they're not simple.

It's more than who's speaking. In some cases, it's how Who is speaking.

My friend lost his mother last week. I missed the funeral but wanted to visit him. I hesitated, had only one free day, and that day wasn't exactly free. When would be a good time?

That morning I had bolted out of an IRB* meeting at 10:00 a.m., grateful that we finished up and no one sustained a fatal narcissistic injury. I got out of the meeting ego in tact, full of love and compassion for humanity (really) and had to make a choice.

Do I pay the visit right now? Or do I wait an hour or two? I didn't have to be at the office until one o'clock, but had plenty on my plate. Maybe my friend wanted to nap. Maybe he wanted a minute to check email. Maybe he was eating a late breakfast.

But I dropped all the rationalizing and drove over.

It was just me and a rabbi visiting, a man little older than me, someone I'd known all my adult life. He had officiated at someone else's funeral earlier in the morning. At his age (those ten to fifteen years he has on me make such a difference) it's funeral to funeral, literally, or funeral to shiva, or shiva to shiva, visiting people in their week of mourning. Occasionally you get to do a wedding, too, if you're a rabbi, or other happy occasions.

But the rabbi has already been visiting here awhile, and he gets up to leave, and it's just the two of us. My friend, who has lost his mother, is joking, complaining that it's kind of boring sitting shiva. You can't work. And you can't play, really, although you might sneak in a game of solitaire on your phone. You can't watch t.v. Oprah is out. Many more can'ts than cans, in the spirit of the event. You're mourning.

Since I missed the funeral he regales me with praises of the young rabbi who spoke. The rabbi is his son. His son, he tells me, worried that he couldn't officiate at the funeral, not because he didn't know the protocol, that they could teach him. He worried he couldn't do it emotionally. He loved his grandmother so much.

My friend told him,
When you get emotional, just look at me. Look at me. I won't be crying. Look at me and Zaidie at my side. We won't be crying. It'll be okay. We don't cry in public. We won't be crying, Zaidie and me. And you won't cry, either.
So powerful, I thought. Look at me. I won't be crying.

And the kid does fine, of course. He's better than okay, better than fine. He rocks. He speaks with sensitivity and gratitude. He conveys who his grandmother is, he brings her to life in this way. This is her. Bubbie.

My friend is still glowing from his son's speech days later, from this person, the man he has become. And I'm thinking, Well of course he's wonderful. Look at his parents.

"Sorry I missed it," I say. "That's what it's all about. Conveying who the person is, that essence. And you're amazing, giving him that tip. Look at me. Look at Zaidie."

So much to learn here.

Those of you who have been reading this blog might remember a discussion we had on stoicism. My position is generally against it. From what I've learned about grieving, from the books and my years of practice, crying is good. Too much holding it in, too much dignity, bad. All is relative, of course, but if a person is on the fence and wants to err on the emotional safe side, if it's time to grieve, grieve.

So someone like me will say, Go ahead, grieve openly if you want. Tell people why you cry. Tell the world. It's okay to cry. If you don't cry, it'll catch up to you. Not that that's bad. But it can be inconvenient.

As my friend's story illustrates, however, grieving doesn't have to be public, and shouldn't necessarily be public. It's okay if it is, sure. Who among us hasn't been to very, very, very sad, weepy funerals? They're fine, and they do us all a world of good in this crazy way, the way that grieving is good. We should feel bad when we lose people. While we grieve the deceased, we can throw in a few tears for other people, too, even for ourselves.

But it's fine, too, to hold them in for awhile, those tears, especially in public if you think you're going to look pathetic.

It all depends, and I imagine you're about to tell me all those depends, when you comment, depends on many things. But public displays of almost everything can be contagious. You know that. And maybe the deceased doesn't especially want that contagion. Maybe the deceased would prefer a wake.

Getting through that speech without breaking down isn't stoicism, it's good public speaking. The young rabbi, while delivering his eulogy, knows that for him, this isn't the right time to cry. He waits for the right time. He can wait.

Like everyone, stoic or not, there really is plenty of time to cry.


*IRB stands for Institutional Research Board, and is often called the OPRS, Office for Protection of Research Subjects. It's the ethics arm of an institution, there to protect people who might participate in university approved research protocols.


Carol said…
I followed a link from a comment you left on my blog (for a post I wrote about Blog Carnivals) and was surprised to see the subject of this post.

But it is so relevant. My brother and I recently lost my Father. At his service my brother read out the eulogy I wrote. Writing it wasn't a problem, but I knew that I wouldn't cope with delivering it - even though I am a professional speaker.

My brother is not a professional speaker - but he did a wonderful job. The warmth in his voice as he read my words reached out to everyone.

As you say, everyone grieves in a different way. Doing this one last thing together for my Father helped us both with our grieving; for me by allowing me to retain my composure and for my brother being able to share our memories of my Father and his sense of humour.

Thanks for sharing this story.

Carol Bentley
Leora said…
it's just the two of us
I'm sure your friend appreciated your shiva call very much.

We paid a shiva call on Erev Pesach. We and one other person were the only ones there. I felt it was really important to our friend that we took out the time from the otherwise most hectic day in the Jewish calendar to visit him.

I guess there are no rules to when it's good to cry or not, but it's really about being in touch with the sad feelings, right, not the actual crying?
therapydoc said…
Carol, I'm so sorry for your loss.

Leora, Yeah. And I'd go a step further, add, not denying feelings is key. They're going to beg for attention otherwise, may as well give them their due.
Psychiatry101 said…
My best friend lost her father just a month ago.Your blog reminded me of that.

Thank you for leaving encouraging comment on my blog ,I started this blog just last week.
I don't know about this. I've been crying at funerals ever since I started doing them, and I expect I always well - for friends as well as for people I never knew.

Certainly, many people don't feel comfortable with public mourning, with that degree of emotional exposure, and they're entitled to their space. So when people are on the fence about eulogizing, I don't push - but, I do remind them that a funeral is an "acceptable" time to cry.
therapydoc said…
I'd go so far as to say, a fantastic place to cry. Let the flood gates open! We lost someone.
therapydoc said…
I'd go so far as to say, a fantastic place to cry. Let the flood gates open! We lost someone.